# High school science

2011-02-03

Talking with Emily the other night, I was reminded of something that happened to me while I was attending Handsworth Secondary School, in North Vancouver. I can’t remember which grade it was in, but I had a large group lecture in ‘science’ (back before they were split by sub-discipline) and one topic covered was buoyancy.

The lecture was taught by Mr. Salkus, one of the two or three teachers who I remember being seriously important for me in high school. At the end, he presented a problem to the class: working out how many five gram helium balloons of a set volume it would require to lift him. Naturally, his weight was provided.

Because I left elementary school having read all the science books I could handle, I started high school with quite a head start in chemistry, physics, and biology. I remember the The Usborne Illustrated Dictionary of Chemistry and the The Usborne Illustrated Dictionary of Physics being favourite childhood texts. (Parents, buy them for your children!) As a result, I was allowed to take Science 8 and Science 9 simultaneously, and move to Science 10 in 9th grade.

One problem with this approach is that my math lagged behind. Math also wasn’t a subject I was particularly strong in. Along with French and gym, it introduced Cs into my high school report cards. I remember, in Chemistry 12, having my brilliant lab partner explain that a problem could be solved easily using an integral, but having no idea how such a thing was done. (Later, as an undergrad, I had a similar experience in an early economics course with regressions.)

So, at the time of this balloon lifting problem, I was not comfortable with algebra. I knew that an algebraic equation would be the way to work out the answer: first by comparing the density of air and helium, then by working out the net lift from each balloon. What I didn’t know was the mathematical technique for doing this properly. Instead, I solved it using an arithmetic kludge.

A prize had been promised to whoever got the answer right, and I remember submitting mine (one of only a small few who did) with nervousness, given that I knew my approach to be somewhat faulty. The next lecture, however, Mr. Salkus gave me a mini Toblerone bar, along with the two students who had actually solved the problem correctly. Maybe he realized that my math classes had lagged behind my science classes; maybe he just felt inclined to reward my effort. In any case, it was one of the things that made me remember him as an unusually good teacher.

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